Friday, February 20, 2009

Mashed Heaven

Because I live alone, it's not all that often that people are cooking for me. And by cooking for me, I mean people who are not ringing my doorbell at some ridiculous hour with a plastic container of takeout. That's not the same as "cooking."

I was on dog-and-15-year-old-sister patrol last night, which meant zipping to Westchester after pilates (don't I sound like a wealthy houswife, minus the wealth?) for makeshift dinner with my little girls. My dad had asked me if I wanted any food left out in exchange for my services. My only caveat was no white flour or sugar.

And so, in two sealed pyrex containers I found my fate: roast chicken (good, but someone had already stolen most of the skin, which, in my estimation, is really the only part worth eating) and my personal favorite, mashed potatoes.

I know so many people who say things like "I make the best mashed potatoes in the world," or, "my mom makes the best mashed potatoes in the world," or "the instant mashed from my high school cafeteria are the best mashed potatoes in the world" (in my hometown, one in ten students received most of their daily nutrients from insta-mash). But my dad actually makes the best mashed potatoes in the world.

In a flavor competition, I have no doubt that we'd reach an impasse. I rarely use skim milk if I'm doing potatoes for a crowd and my secret ingredient--nutmeg, there, I said it, you dragged it out of me--always inspires a bunch of oohs and ahhs from the crowd. Long ago, I learned the secret of good mash lies in the temperature of the added ingredients. Warm milk and butter will incorporate better into mashed potatoes than straight-out-of-the-container leche.

The other rule to live by when making mashed is what kind of potato to use. Mashed potatoes taste best when they come from a high-starch, unwaxy potato. Fingerlings, purple potatoes, new potatoes, and pretty much any other pretty little potato will not do. I prefer Yukon Gold potatoes when I cook because they yield a buttery yellow color reminiscent of the key ingrediant. Russets, a more traditional option, hold up fine, too, and are usually easier to find and less expensive (though not by much; potatoes are never really expensive). But the reason my mashed are always good and never sublime (and to my two lovely guests who came over for pork and mashed two weeks ago, that was an unfortnate mistake owing to an attempt to draw salt out of my potatoes, which I'd bastardized, and so they turned out watery and not very good, not a reflection of my true mashing abilities) is because I do not own an egg-beater or hand blender and am far too lazy to dirty a kitchen aid to puree my potatoes.

I let them cook until they are especially fork-tender, yes. And I always put those gym workouts to the test with vigorous and serious dedication of masher to potato. But if you rely only on human ability and put the toys aside, well, sometimes you get lumps.

The thing is, I know my dad uses an egg-beater. I've seen it. That's why his potatoes are always 100 percent lump-free. I also know he's not stingy when it comes to butter and--let's face it--with potatoes, butter is the only condiment that'll do.

In any case, they were reliably delicious. I forewarned my sister that there had better be mashed potatoes waiting for me when I got home, or I'd be one unhappy camper. I know how 15 goes; food disappears before it has left the grocery bags.

She was kind, though, and left a family-of-four sized portion for yours truly. It took willpower to prevent myself from going back for thirds.

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